Every so often, I'm having a conversation with someone, usually about things quite innocuous—family, work, and sundry other pleasantries—and of course, people want to talk to a pastor about the church. They will ask how things are going, and of course these days, how we’re dealing with the virus. In my mind, I think to myself, “A virus, you say? I shall keep my eyes peeled.”
There are no shortages of churches these days, although many are sitting empty or far from half-full. But even if particular churches in certain places have their struggles, the church universal will not be defeated. If a local church implodes upon itself because of faithlessness, then so be it. Businesses close when they don’t make their owners any money, and churches close when they cease to honor the Lord. Is this not what Christ warns against in the early chapters of Revelation?
Churches may close for a variety of other reasons, but the most common, and the most to be feared, is an unwillingness to consider what they should be doing instead of what they are doing. If a faithless church closes, a faithful church will now have more land to plow, and people will actually become Christians with another feckless group gone that looks busy but is otherwise fruitless.
But this begs the question: what makes a church a church? Is it size? Is it the songs they sing? Is it what they preach? Is it denominational affiliation? Is it their stance on certain prohibitions? Let’s look at a technical term that has been used regularly in the last several hundred years of church history.
Marks of the church. Noun. The visible components that are necessary for a body of gathered people rightly to be called a Christian church.
So what are these visible marks? Historically, Protestants have understood at least two: the right preaching of the Word (gospel preaching), and the right administration of the ordinances (gospel signs). Martin Luther is known to have formed and insisted on these two. John Calvin agreed with only these two marks. Down the line, though, it was other Calvinists that added church discipline (gospel formation) as a third necessary mark of a true church when they wrote the Belgic Confession in 1561.
Preaching is the proclamation, through every passage of Scripture, that Jesus is Lord. If a sermon ends without preaching that, then what you have is a book report. Good advice is not good news.
The ordinances are baptism and communion. Baptism is the sign of regeneration and new life in Christ. You are lowered into the water to symbolize death, and you are raised out of the water to symbolize your resurrection, a promised future event. Communion is how the church remembers the new covenant after they have been baptized. We receive the bread and wine as a memorial meal as the disciples did in the upper room.
Discipline is both formative and corrective. Formative discipline is being confronted with the word of God, whether it be in preaching, group Bible study, private disciplined reading, or basic Christian conversation with a fellow believer. Corrective discipline is being confronted about sin in one’s life through fellow believers. The church must strive to be courageous and consistent in dealing with unrepentant sin in the congregation.
These things only happen faithfully in a gathered setting. There are instances when a person might need to hear a sermon or participate in communion or discipline in some way through other means (such as virtual), but the exception proves the rule. There is no such thing as digital baptism. Virtual communion might be necessary during lockdown orders, but once those are lifted, so is the need for virtual communion.
Some people separate themselves from their church for so long that their consciences are seared from any guilt or shame over not being willing to participate in the life of the church and should repent.
The key word in this definition of the marks of the church is “visible.” The church on your couch is not visible.
It’s important to note that while these three things are necessary, they are not all that a church is. Prayer is not always visible. Personal confession of sin is not always visible. Reconciliation between two offended parties is not always visible. And yet, Scripture commands all three for the church.
So how do you judge a church?
Is all you need good preaching? No, because in the same way that a man screaming Bible passages on the street corner is not a church, neither is a podcast or live-streaming.
Is all you need baptism and communion? No, because no one baptizes themselves or serves themselves communion.
Is all you need formative and corrective discipline? No, because a Christian school does this yet is not rightly called a church.
Some things the church does are more important than others. Even mission work only exists because God desires worshipers in places where there are none.
Every decision we make as a church should be guided by faithfulness to what makes a church a church.
One of the more mind-boggling doctrines of the church is that Christ has two natures. The doctrine is central to orthodoxy, but it is no less easy to understand because of it. How can the Son of God be both divine and human without any changes being made to his divinity or humanity? How was it that the natures did not combine into a special, third nature? We have already made an attempt at defining this doctrine earlier by looking at the hypostatic union.
Last week we defined “propitiation” and looked at how the two natures of Christ had an impact on how we understand the atonement. God does not suffer or change, so it was the human nature that suffered and died on the cross.
Today, I want to define another $1 word and do my best to understand how two natures in Christ also resulted in two wills in Christ.
Dyothelitism. noun. As Christ had two natures, and that did not change the other or combine into a third semi-human, semi-divine nature, Christ also had two wills, each acting according to its respective nature.
You can see how this doctrine is closely related to both the hypostatic union and propitiation. The hypostatic union says that Christ had two natures, and propitiation helps clarify which nature was doing what and when.
What dyothelitism does is show that separating a person’s nature and a person’s will is impossible and really, nonsensical. There can’t be two natures in Christ and only one will. That would be like saying that there are two people in a marriage but only one chair.
If John 1:1, which says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” is true, then Jesus definitely had a divine will. If he had one will, then the apostle John goes to great pains to establish at the outset that it was divine and not human.
But it does raise the question, how could Jesus Christ be both divinely omniscient and know what people were thinking, yet humanly ignorant about the timing of his own return and not know who touched him? How could Jesus Christ be both divinely eternal and exist forever, yet humanly physical and die? Don’t those contradictions undermine the claim of Dyothelitism?
John 6:38 says, “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.”
In Luke 22:42, Jesus says, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.”
Taken together, there is clearly a will within the person of Christ that is distinct from the Father’s, although we don’t get a clear sense from these passages of just how many “wills” there are in Christ.
But the Trinity shares a single will. The Godhead does not have three distinct wills as if they simply came together to share the load of work in creation and salvation. This can be true because of the Trinity consisting of three persons yet a single essence.
This is why the 2 married people/1 chair metaphor doesn’t fall apart, because in a marriage, you still have two separate people with two separate natures or essence, even though they’re both human. In the Trinity, there may be three persons, but they share a single essence.
If anything, these passages identify the human will of Christ, which needed to be conformed to the divine will. Hebrews 5:8-9 tells us, “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.”
Paul tells us in Philippians 2:7 that Jesus “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”
Jesus was eternally divine, as John 1:1 tells us, but at a point in time he emptied himself, technically meaning that he became a servant, by taking on the human nature and a human will.
What these passages do teach us is that Jesus is the perfect representative of the human race before a perfect God. As a man, he learned obedience without being disobedient and was then able to save all those the Father sent to him.
Christ having both two natures and two wills according to each nature was so important to the early Christians that monothelitism, or the idea that Christ had two natures yet one will, was condemned as a heresy in the third Council of Constantinople in 681. Decreeing a doctrine as heretical really did not happen that often in the early church. But when it did, the effects of that doctrine were understood to be a rejection of the biblical witness. To argue for one will in Christ requires a black marker over too much of the Bible's pages.
Christ had two natures in one person, each nature retaining the attributes of its respective will. Christ had come to do the divine will, which he shares with the Father and the Spirit, while learning to conform his human will to the divine will through suffering.
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Last week I quoted Hebrews 2:17, which by way of reminder says, “Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” The point being made was that Christ was “made like his brothers,” in service of the fact that Christ was both 100% God and 100% man.
But what about that funny little word toward the end there? Propitiation? When’s the last time that came up at the dinner table?
It’s actually an important word for a robust doctrine of the atonement, or what took place because of the death and resurrection of Christ.
Propitiation: noun. The aspect of the atoning work of Christ that is focused on the wrath of God being satisfied in the substitutionary death of his Son on behalf of the elect.
The atonement has many different aspects, but the primary way of describing why it happened and what took place is bound up in the word propitiation. Let’s stick with Hebrews 2:17 at first to see what it teaches.
Throughout the Old Testament, there was a need for a mediator between God and man. Enter the priests. God established Moses’s brother Aaron as a priest and developed the tribe of Levi as the priests for all of Israel. The primary responsibilities of the priests were to facilitate the necessary sacrifices from the people (and themselves) and to teach the people the law, or instruction, of God.
Because there is only one God, God cannot be a priest. What kind of being mediates himself? 1 Samuel 2:25 says, “If someone sins against a man, God will mediate for him, but if someone sins against the Lord, who can intercede for him?”
Samuel is also thought of the prototypical priest. 1 Samuel 2:26 says, “Now the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and also with man.” Now who else does that sound like (cf. Luke 2:52)?
In the same way that there was always a longing for (and of course the promise of) a king to be on the throne of David, which Christ also satisfies, there was also a longing for a priest who fulfills his duties for the final time. There was a desire for a day when sacrifices would cease because there was no more need for them. Read: sin was fully and finally dealt with. The major prophets Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah deal heavily with this.
When Jesus Christ became our priest, it’s because he was also fully a man. He was the prophet better than Moses, the king better than David, and the priest better than Samuel.
The priests of the Old Testament were instructed to use the blood of bulls and rams. God has always required a life for sin. But as Hebrews 10:4 tells us, “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” The Old Testament sacrificial system as a whole was only a shadow of what Christ would do. Animal sacrifices could not satisfy divine justice.
But when Christ offered himself in our place, the priest also became the sacrifice, something no other priest could have done. Christ’s perfections and his obedience to the law of God made him suitable to be a substitute for the wrath of God. And that is the sacrifice that ended the sacrificial system forever. Hebrews 10:12 says, “But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God.”
Propitiation summarizes that truth. Christ appeased God’s wrath by substituting himself in our place according to the divine will and foreknowledge of God.
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In the last few decades or so, it's became fashionable to sing worship songs to Jesus as if he was the church's high school sweetheart. If we aren't careful, this radically changes the way we think about our Savior. Everything else that's true about him falls into the category of "Other."
One area that's happened especially is in the doctrine of the natures of Christ. It's not always seen as something significant since it's not immediately applicable to life's biggest problems, or so we think.
So this week's theological dictionary term is:
Hypostatic Union: noun. The joining of a human and the divine nature in the person of Jesus Christ without any damage done to the other nature or the creation of a third nature.
In Jesus Christ, something otherwise impossible occurred. The Son of God lowered himself, took on the form of a servant, and dwelt among us. Jesus was not equal parts man and God, but fully man and fully God. Jesus Christ was not a new kind of being, like a demigod. He was not Hercules. He was 100% human and 100% divine.
So why does this matter? Because Jesus is the fulfillment of 100s of years of prophecy. He's the suffering servant of Isaiah 42, 49, 50, and 53. He's the unblemished lamb the whole sacrificial system pointed to. He's the prophet better than Moses of Deuteronomy 18.
We need a better priest, someone to atone for our sins. But we need a better prophet, too, someone to teach us about God. We need a better king, someone who will obey God perfectly.
We also need a better sacrifice—a lamb free from the effects of sin who is willing to take on our sins. And if the blood of lambs and goats can't do that, then who can? God cannot take on sin, or he would be a sinner, and therefore not be God. So, using language very carefully, we can say that Jesus died on the cross. But we must be clear, the human nature of Jesus faced death, not the divine nature. God did not die on the cross.
Jesus had always been God, but he became a man at a specific point in time, IE, the incarnation. However, he did at times work within the specific limits of humanity. For instance, he was often thirsty or tired. He also, at times, would act in the power of his divinity. Jesus multiplied food, calmed the waves, and raised the dead.
Hebrews 2:17 says, "Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people."
Jesus is our priest, faithful and final, and the incarnation made that possible.
Philippians 2:8-11 says, "And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."
Because Jesus took on flesh (which was the plan from eternity past), because he was obedient as a man, and because he died as a man, God has made him king and given him full authority over us.
This also implies that Jesus Christ is still to this day fully God and fully man. They hypostatic union continues. Right now, Jesus is the God-man, interceding for us at the right hand of the Father. When he comes again, he'll bring all of his fleshy divinity with him.